With logging dustup, LePage may have opened Pandora’s box

If Gov. Paul LePage has nothing to hide, he sure isn’t acting like it.

The Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee sent a request for information to LePage’s conservation commissioner last week, and the governor came utterly unglued.

The committee is asking about the decision to withhold timber shipments from several Maine sawmills whose owners criticized LePage’s effort to end Canadian softwood tariffs. The administration stopped the mills’ timber deliveries completely several months after their owners published a column in the BDN explaining that lifting the tariffs would hurt Maine’s logging industry. The committee wants to know if the timber shipments were stopped in retaliation for the criticism.

LePage penned an over-the-top letter to the committee, calling the information request “offensive,” “outrageous,” “shameful,” “a disgrace,” “unfounded,” “scandalous,” and “scurrilous.”  All in one short letter.

Gov. Paul LePage delivers his final State of the State address on Feb. 13. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

He then made a rare appearance before the ACF Committee. For nearly an hour, LePage berated the committee, at one point even criticizing one of the members for smiling. He claimed the request for information was “an inquisition” and a “witch hunt,” called members of the committee dishonest, and provided inaccurate information through a winding thread of conflicting explanations.

Not the kind of performance you’d expect from someone with a clear conscience.

The governor also made a critical mistake during his tirade.

LePage, in his bluster, questioned the integrity of the ACF Committee members, and asked that the issue be moved to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s independent investigative arm, for a more thorough review. The oversight office is the only one with subpoena power, and LePage told the ACF Committee, “you’re going to need it.”

The committee agreed, and immediately voted to send the issue to be investigated.

Moving the issue to the oversight office means emails, text messages, memos, and conversations will be vetted, and administration officials will be asked to answer questions under the threat of perjury.

Once LePage’s blood pressure dropped a bit, it appears he realized the mistake he’d made.

On Friday, he sent a letter to the Government Oversight Committee, which approved an OPEGA investigation, requesting a series of ridiculous accommodations. First, he asked that the two GOP senators who initiated the ACF Committee inquiry, Sen. Tom Saviello and Sen. Paul Davis, be recused from the oversight committee. Second, he asked that these same members be put under oath themselves to answer his questions. Unfortunately for the governor, this is not the way investigative committees work.

LePage is right to be concerned about this investigation. There are significant details of his testimony that are quantifiably inaccurate, such as his exaggerated job loss claims. And the details of what exactly went down with the curtailed timber deliveries has yet to be explained.

It is not going to be a pretty picture once all the facts are on the table.

And there are other, deeper questions to be answered about LePage’s position on the logging industry. He has been an outspoken critic of tariffs on Canadian softwood imports, tariffs meant to protect Maine loggers. And he has spent a conspicuous amount of time out-of-state advocating for the welfare of Canadian business interests.

In fact, LePage requested a meeting in February with the US Commerce Department, and brought the New Brunswick Premier to Washington to plead for an exemption from the tariffs. According to a Commerce Department memo, LePage claimed 500 Maine loggers a day are losing their jobs because of these softwood tariffs, an utterly impossible and inaccurate statistic.

The New Brunswick government considers LePage a key ally for their business interests. And LePage seems strangely comfortable playing this role. Maine businesses wish they had similar support from their governor.

LePage’s Canada-first positions extend from the logging industry to the energy sector, where his only concrete energy policy initiative is to purchase Canadian power at the expense of Maine generators. LePage also did an about-face on his condemnation of land conservation projects when a substantial political donor wanted to preserve land that he leases to Canadian maple syrup producers.

And there is also the issue of LePage’s close family ties to the Canadian lumber industry. Representatives of H.J Crabbe & Sons, a New Brunswick lumber interest, have joined LePage’s call for an end to the tariffs. Coincidentally, this is the same Crabbe family LePage was once employed by, and married into. He’s referred to the former head of H.J. Crabbe as one of his business mentors. And to complicate matters even more, his daughter from this first marriage has worked for the New Brunswick government as director of their economic development department.

There are so many questions that need to be answered, and LePage’s request to have the Government Oversight committee dig into this situation may end up opening a Pandora’s box. What may have started as a petty vendetta could open the floodgates to a review of a broader, more troubling dynamic.

No wonder the governor is so upset.

 

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.